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How the Chinese Culture Foundation ended up in the Hilton Hotel

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Mike koozmin/the s.f. examiner
Mabel Teng

Across Portsmouth Square, linked by a pedestrian bridge, the 27-story Hilton San Francisco Financial District towers over Chinatown — a community the high-rise developers originally sought to exclude.

But that scenario never happened, as a resolution the Board of Supervisors adopted long ago supported having a center for Chinese culture there. Whoever won the bid for the site was to also accommodate the Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year and is announcing a new mission to spark intercultural discovery through art, education and engagement.

Today, the foundation — housed on the third floor of the hotel — and hotel adorned with terra cotta soldiers and Chinese embellishments continue a coexistence that roots back to what foundation Executive Director Mabel Teng calls a “prearranged marriage.”

However, the relationship was not without its pitfalls.

The very creation of the foundation on Oct. 15, 1965, was the product of tireless advocacy from a rising Chinatown middle class fueled by the national civil-rights movement and a desire to establish firm footing in the American political landscape.

The new order formed the San Francisco Greater Chinatown Community Service Association Organization in February 1963, coincidentally a month before The City announced it would sell its land at Kearny and Washington streets where the Hilton is now located. The Hall of Justice building occupied the site until 1956, and eventually was torn down to make way for a new hotel.

A leader of the service organization asked The City to convert the abandoned building into a cultural center, museum or other public facility for the community, according to a 1995 essay by the late Chinese-American historian Him Mark Lai on the 30th anniversary of the foundation.

The City considered the project financially unfeasible, but the service organization, which evolved into the foundation in 1965, successfully lobbied the Board of Supervisors to turn the property over to the Redevelopment Agency and begin negotiating with prospective buyers. It fell on Justice Enterprises Inc. to bring a Holiday Inn to the property that would include a $70,000 contribution to a 20,000-square-foot facility that would become the foundation's Chinese Culture Center.

In 1967, the Redevelopment Agency, the foundation and Justice Investors signed a 50-year lease charging $1 per year in rent, with the possibility of extending it 10 years.

“So we're stuck for 60 years at least,” Teng said with a laugh this week as she prepared for the foundation's largest fundraiser in its history on Saturday.

The event is taking place at the Chinese Culture Center's auditorium in the hotel, and Justice Enterprises is sponsoring the dinner.

“It's part of the building,” said Geoff Palermo, 50, managing director at the Hilton and an owner of Justice Enterprises. “Now you can't have one without the other, and this is the intent of the agreement to begin with. We can't think of it any other way.”

The marriage was grounded only after a debate about whether the site should have been public housing instead of a hotel, and the pedestrian bridge that provides direct access between the hotel and Chinatown was once opposed by community members who were concerned about shadows on Portsmouth Square.

Those issues eventually became a thing of the past.

When Palermo in 2003 decided to remodel the Holiday Inn into a Hilton, he set aside $3.5 million of the $55 million renovation to build out the center and add a mezzanine level. That has enabled the foundation to serve 65,000 people annually through its art gallery and programs.

Palermo said a third of the Hilton's customers have a connection to Asia — with many who visit the third floor and cross the bridge directly into Chinatown — and he hopes that continues long after he is gone.

“I don't see it changing,” he said. “You don't want your family members to get older. But it's not like it ends there.”

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